Bringing the mental health conversation full circle

A year before three constables were gunned down in Moncton in 2014, Liane Vail, then an active RCMP officer, was laying the groundwork for mental health education in the force.

“I had no idea that just 12 months after we began piloting the concept of giving active members a common language to express a mental injury, our efforts would be tested in such a devastating and unimaginable way,” she said.

Today, The Working Mind First Responders (TWMFR) is a well-established training course that helps first responders link colours in the program’s mental health continuum model with their state of well-being.  The continuum is an illustrative sliding scale: green (healthy and well), yellow (reacting), orange (injured), and red (ill). 

But five years ago, the idea hadn’t yet reached the mainstream.

“I think we responded so diligently to the shootings because members were willing to come to the drop-in centre we’d set up — which included an occupational health team with psychologists and peer-supporters — and say, “I don’t know what on earth I need, but I do know I’m in the red,” she explained.

Vail has since retired from the RCMP and started working part time as a TWMFR master trainer. What’s got her really motivated these days is a booster session for family members that’s bringing the mental health conversation full circle.

“This was a huge missing piece of the puzzle,” said Vail, who more recently put the family training course to the test in circumstances similar to the one in Moncton.

This time, two civilians and two city police officers were killed in a nightmarish shooting in a Fredericton apartment block. “It happened in August 2018, on this beautiful bright sunny day. There was almost no one on the force who wasn’t affected. You don’t have to be at the scene of an event like this to feel vulnerable, shaken, hypervigilant — and that also goes for the families of dispatchers and officers. They carry this vicarious trauma, and they need a name for what they are feeling.”

Giving a name for such trauma is exactly what the First Responder Family Package sets out to achieve. In a short but intense course, the families of first responders get valuable information that’s easy to digest and even life changing.

That was true for David Banks, manager of the Public Safety Communications Centre for the City of Fredericton, and his wife, Amanda, who enrolled in the family course during its pilot phase in October of 2018.

“Dispatchers’ families may not have the same experience as those of firefighters and police officers, who constantly worry about their loved ones’ physical safety,” said Banks. “But that doesn’t mean dispatchers don’t experience some very hard days — like being on the phone for hours with someone who may be suicidal. That takes a toll,” he explained. “So sometimes I bring my work home with me. When I do, and when other first responders do, it’s our families that bear the brunt.”

After taking the family course, Banks says his wife better understands how his work experiences can “colour” his mental health. “The continuum is a great resource. It’s blown up and laminated on the wall of our dispatch centre. It makes an invisible injury visible in a way — and that makes all the difference. You don’t question a broken leg, and you shouldn’t question operational stress injuries either. They are very real.”

It’s this effective communication that opens channels to empathy, tearing down walls of silence and trepidation built up over months and years.

“You’ve got a spouse who comes home from work, sometimes reluctant to share experiences, sometimes stony silent and frustrated. And you’ve got a spouse at home who feels rejected, alone, and afraid of poking the bear,” said Vail.

“The program is evidence based,” explained Mike Pietrus, the MHCC’s director of Mental Health First Aid and Opening Minds. “The MHCC is indebted to Medavie and Brain Canada for funding the development and assessment of the family package, which is proving to be highly effective.”

Inspector Kim Quartermain, a 23-year veteran of the Fredericton Police Force, concurs. She’s been instrumental in rolling out The Working Mind and it’s first responder adaptation to every city employee, including 105 officers and leaders on the municipal force.

“Talking about mental health is less loaded when we articulate our feelings as a colour,” said Quartermain. “For a long time in the policing culture, emotions (save anger) were taboo. TWMFR gives us a common language to express the signs and symptoms of operational stress injuries, and the family package gives our families the tools they need to respond in kind.”

Quartermain says that when she arrived on the force, she didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how the job might affect her mental wellness. Today, she takes a different approach. Because of that, she was able to recognize the toll of grief and trauma from the Fredericton shootings and make provisions to preserve and protect her own mental health.

“Afterward, we wanted to offer family members the opportunity to decompress and learn coping strategies,” she said. “While the turnout in October was small, maybe in part because it was so close to the event, those who did come found it extremely helpful.”

When asked if she thinks stigma has lessened over the course of her career, Quartermain paused thoughtfully. “It has — although we can do more. One area we need to cultivate is knowing what “mentally healthy” looks like while realizing it’s going to be different for everyone. It’s a learning curve, certainly, but we are getting there.”

Banks agreed. “We’re seeing a trend toward less shame about expressing a mental injury and less resentment when colleagues are called in for double duty when someone is off sick. No doubt bringing families around to greater understanding is a crucial piece of this work. My wife, Amanda, will tell anybody that the family package has changed her outlook and made our relationship stronger.

As far as Banks is concerned, “there’s no better way to spend three hours.”